High school students learn about pedestrian safety; Postponed bill in Congress shuts out bicyclists, pedestrians

02/15/12 Janelle Irwin
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In October, a Middleton High School Student was hit and killed by a car while crossing Hillsborough Avenue on her way to school. The Florida Department of Transportation estimates that there are 375 people killed in car accidents annually in the Tampa area. But a transportation bill in the U.S. House would fund fewer projects that would make it safer to walk or ride a bike.

As he attempted to lead a group of ten Middleton High School students across Hillsborough Avenue at 22nd Street, Rudy Umbs could have been another pedestrian struck by a motor vehicle along that busy corridor.

“Didn’t stop. That is not unusual. Cars are supposed to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks when they have legal right. And they’re not. And that’s where a lot of the crashes are occurring is people are just stepping off the curb and getting hit because cars are wielding around. Because drivers are looking that way because they don’t want to get hit. They’re not letting us cross.

Umbs is a retired chief highway safety engineer for the Federal Highway Administration. His goal as he paraded teenagers around the busy Hillsborough Avenue corridor was to teach them how to use awareness as a safety tool. But if watching cars carelessly whiz by a group of neon clad pedestrians wasn’t impactful enough, Umbs appealed to their wallets.

“It costs you, personally, $900 a year. You, your brother, your sister, everybody and that’s the cost of car crashes.”

But teaching ten kids to look both ways isn’t enough. The Sierra Club’s regional representative Phil Compton said Florida needs a fair slice of the mandatory gas tax charged at the pump.

“Right now, 10% of monies have to go to transportation enhancements and that includes making it safer to walk or ride a bike and that’s something we really need here in Tampa Bay of course, because Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami are the four most dangerous places to walk in America and Tampa and Orlando are the two most dangerous places to ride a bicycle.”

But the proposed House transportation bill would instead make states compete for that money. Last year, Governor Rick Scott rejected more than 2 billion dollars in federal funding for high-speed rail. Compton said the governor’s track record makes winning funding for any projects other than roadways unlikely.

“All the money that’s going to that would be eliminated and then it would have to be appropriated in a competitive way so Florida would have to fight with other states to get money for bicycling and walking. And when you have the state legislature and the Governor not necessarily inclined towards those types of funds, it really puts making Florida safer at risk.”

Middleton High School Student Shanika Davis was killed in October crossing Hillsborough Avenue on her way to school. She wasn’t crossing at a crosswalk. Tampa traffic homicide Detective Patrick Messmer said it’s a common cause of pedestrian accidents.

“A lot of times, pedestrians in crosswalks, it’s hard to get vehicles to yield to them so that contributes. And a lot of times, the majority of our pedestrian crashes at least in the City of Tampa that we get called on, the pedestrians are not crossing in a crosswalk. They’re crossing mid-walk, they’re crossing mid-block, they’re crossing outside of an intersection and the vehicles have a very difficult time seeing them because they’re not expecting to see the pedestrian out in the roadway. And pedestrians, either they don’t see the vehicles coming or else they just assume that the vehicle is going to stop and the vehicle doesn’t stop.”

While funding mandates for safety improvements would help the Tampa Bay area’s higher than normal fatality rates, officials are still trying to reduce accidents. William Porth is the traffic safety coordinator for the City of Tampa. He said studies were conducted to place a crosswalk along Hillsborough Avenue near where Davis was killed. The crosswalk isn’t going to happen, but plans are still in the works to make it safer.

“On this strip of Hillsborough Avenue, both for east and westbound travel, the Florida Department of Transportation would install a pedestrian zone through the use of signs and flashers bringing awareness to traffic that there’s heavy movement along the corridor.”

Safety engineer Rudy Umbs said there are also guidelines for making crosswalks safer for pedestrians to make it to the other side before traffic signals change.

“And there are standards that are set up that traffic signals are supposed to allow so much time; it’s 3.5 feet per second that you can cross so we do the calculations. But I just kind of figured out what 3.5 seconds is on my walk.”

Regardless, the Sierra Club’s Phil Compton said more focus needs to be placed on alternative modes of transportation. Walking, biking, public transportation, any further choices Compton said would help reduce transportation-related injuries and deaths.

“This is really the dream of big oil to deny us those choices; to keep us addicted to oil because there’s so many things that would be undone that we’ve had here in America that have enabled most of the rest of America to have the choices that we don’t have here in Tampa Bay to not drive our car every time we go leave our homes.”

The transportation bill is sponsored by Orlando-area Republican John Mica. In a letter yesterday the White House warned that President Obama would veto the bill if it passed, citing safety concerns.

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